Exploring killifish as a new model organism for ageing

‘At ERIBA we conduct research into the process of ageing. We study the molecular processes responsible for the ageing of cells, tissues and organs, and try to work out how age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer develop. We use various model organisms to do this. They include invertebrates such as yeast cells and worms as well as animals such as zebra fish and mice. At the moment, we are introducing a new model, the oviparous killifish (order of ray-finned fish). These fish have the potential to speed up our research into ageing’.

‘Good model organisms are essential for carrying out research into fundamental biological processes such as the development of diseases or ageing. As these are highly fundamental processes, a lot can be achieved with research into invertebrates such as yeast cells and worms. The basic molecular mechanisms in vertebrates and invertebrates are reasonably similar. Yeast and worms are relatively cheap and have a short life cycle. But the main advantage – the fact that they are invertebrates – is also the main disadvantage. You reach a point when you want to test your findings on vertebrate organisms that resemble humans more closely.

We often use mice in our research into ageing, but zebra fish are a good alternative. The tricky thing about studying ageing is that the symptoms we want to examine typically do not appear until late in life. This isn’t a problem with invertebrate models because they only live for a matter of days or weeks. Mice and zebra fish, on the other hand, take two to three years to age. This makes that the research proceeds at a relatively slow pace.

We are therefore in urgent need of a vertebrate model organism that ages rapidly. In recent years, we have been looking at a new, promising model organism: the killifish (Nothobranchius furzeri). The origins of the killifish have led them to develop very quickly. The fish come from Africa, where they grow in pools during the short rainy season and lay eggs right at the start of the ensuing long dry period. Their entire life cycle lasts just a few months; months in which the fish genuinely age. The brightly coloured males start to fade towards the end of the season, they lose their eyesight, move around less actively and have an increased risk of developing cancer.

In short, the fish display many of the signs of ageing that occur in humans. We also think that killifish could be an effective model for studying neurodegenerative diseases and metabolism. Research using killifish is still at an early stage; there are only a few laboratories in the world currently working with these fish. But the number is growing. At the moment, we have several hundred fish in our tanks, but our research still focuses on how best to look after them. And we are obviously looking for suitable research projects that can be modified to use killifish to speed up our research into ageing’.